No one likes reading bad news about our food. From high-fructose corn syrup to genetically-modified ingredients and food safety recalls, each time a health scare makes the news the repercussions linger. We tweet, Facebook and blog, writing passionate status updates about how important it is that something, anything, be done. We start online petitions. Each tweet and hashtag fuels the fire of mass online disgust that lasts for about a week before the news cycle renews itself and all is forgotten. Until the next scare.
The recent uproar over “pink slime” in hamburgers and school lunches followed the same pattern. As Andy Bellatti put it, it’s a case of “same script, different cast.” For those unfamiliar with the issue, “pink slime” is a term coined in 2002 by former USDA microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein to describe a product developed by South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc. Its owner, Eldon Roth, developed a process that turns slaughterhouse scraps – the excess fat closest to the skin of a cow, and from other cuts of meat – into a lean beef filler free of E. coli and salmonella that burger makers could mix into patties. Those annoying pathogens would be taken care of once batches of Lean Finely Textured Beef (its official name) went through a bath of ammonia gas, which, we are assured, is actually food safe (it isn’t the same type of ammonia found in household cleaners). Not only did we discover last month that this ingredient is present in 70 percent of raw ground beef sold in America’s grocery stores, the public learnt of the USDA’s plans to buy seven million pounds of the product for the National School Lunch Program.
It is tempting to throw one’s hands up in despair; I did, when I read the news. I don’t even have kids, so I can only imagine the anxiety that parents of school-age children must feel.
Yet, despairing and sharing our outrage online from the comfort of the keyboard is, by and large, the easy thing to do. It is far harder to affect real change, outside of the media frenzy, in the privacy of our daily lives. I think, no, I believe, that it all begins with becoming a better eater. Please note that I’m not advocating for a particular diet over another – this is not a conversation about veganism vs. omnivorism. It is a discussion about America’s attitudes towards food, regardless of personal beliefs. Here’s why.
While every bacterial outbreak or discovery of unsavory ingredients in our food is an indicator of a failed food system, it is a large-scale problem that will take decades to solve. Of course it needs to change, it should change, and it will. But change of this scale takes time, leaving us with the big question: what can be done right now?
I’d volunteer that it begins with us, the consumers, to change, or rather, deepen our relationship with food. Real food, prepared from scratch as much as one’s schedules and pocketbooks can afford.
There’s no doubt that the accessibility of cheap, processed foods, in ever-expanding portions, has contributed to a rise in obesity rates, but what’s also lacking is any mention of how the consistent consumption of such products dull the eater’s palate, making wholesome, freshly-prepared food significantly bland in comparison. If you’ve ever tried to cut out soda from your diet, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Food that tastes good, in the sense of being at its peak of flavor, prepared in a way that honors its essence, or not even prepared at all – like a tomato plucked fresh from the vine – is almost always the healthier option. The drive for profitability and convenience in the food industry has clouded this truth, turning consumers into addicts of convenience and fake-flavored foods who bear the misperception that cooking something from scratch is too hard. This lack of a strong food culture – one that prizes the integrity of the ingredient, the process of cooking and the act of sharing a meal – allows corporate agriculture to dictate how we engage with what we eat.
Indeed, there are many factors in favor of quick dinner solutions for busy households or those who may not have the luxury of preparing a freshly-cooked meal every night. But in enjoying the convenience and relative affordability of a frozen dinner or takeout, let’s not forget what real food tastes like, and, more dangerously, give up the effort to create those sorts of dishes when possible.
If we’re serious about stopping health scares and preventing horrifying “innovations” like “pink slime” in our food system, we need to become a nation of better eaters. Develop your palate. Know the difference between an apple flown across thousands of miles and a fresh one harvested at its peak of ripeness. Learn to shop for the best ingredients, and learn how to prepare them simply. Savor the meals you cook for yourself. Think about how you can improve it for the next time. Repeat until it becomes second nature. That’s how change begins.